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The Functions of Communication
This Lesson describes the basic Functions of Communication: Getting what you want, getting someone else to do something, entertainment, and learning. (Updated Oct 2022)

Added By: Jamie Morgan

July 2, 2019

Learning Subjects

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The Functions of Communication 

At its most fundamental, it can be said, that a key function of Communication is interpreting a particular situation and acting within that situation.

The assumption is that the reception of stimuli, from our bodies, and the environment, “stimulates” our brain. This “stimulation” causes all sorts of cognitive stuff to happen. And it happens along a continuum from “cognitive harmony” to “cognitive dissonance.”

Communication is used to either increase cognitive harmony or reduce cognitive dissonance.

Cognitive Continuum

The How and Why of Communication

Internal biochemical and bioelectrical forces and external forces like light waves and sound waves stimulate our senses, which then stimulate our brain to start our cognitive processes.

Our cognitive processes determine the condition of uncertainty or novelty of that new information, determine and then use communication to clarify the situation and restore the equilibrium, if necessary.

Thus, an overall function of communication is to add new information to our cognitive processes so we can achieve the “optimum” cognitive balance between harmony and dissonance.

Having said that, below are 3 Foundational Functions of Communication. The functions of communication in this case refer to the “Goals” or the “Intent” of the communication.

It is said, “form follows function.” If you need to cross a river, a bridge or a ferry seem like reasonable choices. Knowing what you need to do (its function) is what “should” drive the form (its communication.)

Note that some folks don’t understand this. They use the same forms of communication for all situations. Unfortunately for them, any success they achieve, as a result of their communication choices, is either fortuitous or short-lived.

You will increase your chances of success by understanding the functions of communication and using that to build the most effective communication.


3 Foundational Functions of Communication:

    • Transactional (getting something done)
    • Relational (building the network)
    • Entertainment (pleasure).

“Transactional” and “Relational” functions are independent. However, they can be more effective if they are done in harmony and rhythm.

Since the physical act of a “Transaction” could help build the “Relationship,” and since having the “Relationship” helps improve the “Transaction,” it makes sense to think of the two as “together.”

The Entertainment function may include a “Relational” and/or a “Transactional” function, but it doesn’t have to. Sometimes we just want to be entertained without any other function interfering with the entertainment.

Transactional Function of Communication

A basic function of communication is to get something or have someone do something.

This is called “Transactional.”

It is “Transactional” in the sense that the communication exists only at that moment for that specific transaction.

    • Ask Function (Pull) – Get Something.
      • Physical Ask –  “I’d like a piece of pepperoni pizza.”
        • A physical good is transferred from one to another.
        • The physical good no longer is with the sender.  They cannot give the same piece of pepperoni pizza to someone else.
      • Information Ask – “I’d like directions to the Eiffel Tower.”
        • Information is transferred from one to another.
        • The Information is still with the Sender, they can send the same information to someone else.
    • Tell Function (Push) – Control the actions of others.
      • Physical Tell – “Line up in an orderly fashion.”
        • This could include physical force.
        • This could be a voluntary request.
      • Information Tell – “The stove is hot.”
        • This would never include physical force.
        • An attempt to express a sudden change of state, fear, delight, pain, or confusion.
      • Persuasive Tell – “You should vote for John.”
        • For some people, most of their communication is intended to tell someone else what to do.
      • Expressive Tell
        • Provides Feedback.
        • May not be a deliberate, conscious expression, but a spontaneous, immediate response not directed toward any other object.

Relational Function of Communication

A basic requirement for communication is a channel for communication and shared code between the sender and receiver. These two communication elements together are called a “network.”

Relational Communication is communication intended to build and/or maintain our social networks.

Relational communication is also called  “Ritualistic Communication.”

Example: Praying in church or delivering a commencement address.

Ritual Communication 

 Ritual Communication

Within the Relational Function of communication, there is a clear “Control” aspect to it.

This control aspect may not be deliberate and conscious, as when a baby cries, but as one grows and the environment becomes more organized, this control aspect of communication becomes more and more central.

Additionally, this function of communication helps us develop a sense of personal identity, a sense of social identity, and a sense of belongingness to a particular group, marking out different degrees of social proximity and distance.

Standing for the National Anthem creates and maintains a sense of social identity. However, sometimes, this sense of social identity if it is very narrow, can result in social conflicts and confrontations between different groups.


Entertainment/Creative Function of Communication

Entertainment is an important function of Communication.

It exists somewhere between “Transactional” and “Relational” communication. The intent is not, necessarily, to get or give anything. And the intent is not, necessarily, to build our relationships. While both of those functions can occur with Entertainment, they are not the reason for the communication.

Art, Singing, Comedy, drama, and other forms of entertainment are examples of this function.

While looking at the entertainment function of communication is not that important from a theory and skill perspective, it is just important to note that sometimes we communicate just to have fun and feel good.

However, please note that entertainment can, and often does, have a strong relational function and a strong transactional function.

I may watch a movie because I like it, but going to the movies and watching that particular movie with others in the community helps build relationships. It might give me something to talk about with network which helps build the network.

Also, even though a movie might be entertainment, I can still learn from it and have it be transactional.